Friday, June 5, 2015

How Could You Not Remember Your Own Story?

When you listen to an admired writer being interviewed, particularly on the longer NPR or cable news segments, where there is room for some depth, you feel a pang of envy at the way the author seems to be so familiar with the text, almost on a scene-by-scene basis.

Your first thought emerges as a frisson of disquiet. So, this is part of what it takes to be a writer.  You not only articulate the concepts, you in effect become them, make them a part of your consciousness. 

You could see the possibility for you being that able to recall a specific line or moment from a short story.  But a novel seems daunting, perhaps impossible.  Anything of book length seems beyond your hope of recall, like rummaging about in a drawer for a sock of matching color.

But actors do something similar all the time, don't they?  Actors have access to the entire arc of story in which they appear as a character.  And, didn't you hear from more than one source that some actors, Daniel Day-Lewis, for one, stay in character the entire time a work is being filmed?

That's somewhat better, isn't it?  In addition, actors rehearse, run lines.  Actors are also able to conflate action with their lines, and the added sense of blocking, the sense of knowing where they are to be in every moment of a given scene.

With that assurance closer to hand, you don't feel so daunted when an interviewer asks a writer about a particular scene or even a memorable exchange of dialogue.  Perhaps there's a connection somewhere between the actor and the writer.

Of course, there's a connection.  The writer has to keep up with the entire script, the entire ensemble of front-rank characters, subsidiaries, and walk-ons who come delivering pizzas, bad news, eviction notices, and summonses to appear in courtroom proceedings.  At some point, all these individuals spring from the psyche of the writer, places where there are bright, overhead lights, casting motive and awareness in clear light, but also the equivalents of a wall sconce with a guttering candle, providing flickering shadows.

The connection becomes clearer as the image grows.  You often lose track of how many actual drafts you write before saying the work is all down in captured keystrokes or handwritten pages. Time now to get a completed draft you will then subject to your own laundry list for revision, which begins appropriately enough by asking you, the creator, if you've gone through the entire manuscript to determine where the action meets your criteria for a proper beginning.

You know what a proper beginning is, how it resonates intrigue because of the way it sets characters into immediate motion.  The action may already have begun before the curtain rises or page one of the text appears.  This means the audience/reader sees interesting, quirky individuals in the act of doing something intriguing, something the reader wishes to understand.  But the characters are too busy being caught up in the story to stop the action now to explain,either in dialogue or interior monologue.

The next item on your list is to discover where the story ends.  This is a direct challenge to you as creator; are you trying to explain what the characters have already conveyed through their own words and actions?  Do you trust the reader to get the sense of ending from the clues you've provided?  Perhaps you need to go back, scene by scene, to the beginning, looking for places where a slight hint or implication might help or, conversely, ought to be removed because you were caught red-handed, trying to toss some hints to the reader.

Your checklist has at least a dozen other aspects to be examined, such as dialogue, length of scenes, duplication of scenes, duplication of characters, choices relative to point of view.  Make that a focused search or revisit of the entire text with that one aspect in mind.

Before you know it, you've lost any hope of counting the number of times you've looked at each sentence in each scene, wondering if a scene earned its keep or needed some ballast.  Let's be realistic:  you've been through the manuscript twenty or twenty-five times, minimum.  Then your literary agent sees it, may have suggestions.

Now the work goes off to one or more editors, one of whom says she wants the project, but only after certain issues and elements are addressed.  Once again, you return to the text, which has already changed measurably since you began.

With luck, that's all for the time being--until the time for proofing arrives.  A work in type looks different, more vulnerable in type than in manuscript form.  Since you're already undertaking a review for misspelling or punctuation issues, we can add yet another run through, another equivalent of a dress rehearsal for a stage play or the shooting of a scene for film.

Months pass.  Now, ARCs, advance reading copies, have been sent for review.  In this crowded world with thousands of new publications appearing each week, you consider yourself fortunate to be given any kind of review at all, much less one with the potential of a five- or ten- or perhaps even fifteen-minute interview on a local NPR station.

The interview, a nice young person--nice because she or he appears to have actually read your book--asks you about the symbolism in the opening of chapter three or the satiric intent in the portrayal of Character X.

You listen to the question, then gulp, the first word coming to mind is some inchoate er or um, which you are poised to deliver in an apologetic manner.  After all, it's been months now that you've been away from this project, perhaps even engaged in a new one.

But something remarkable happens.  The inchoate er or um are quite unnecessary.  You are on autopilot as your writer self spins off focused, articulate sentences, all of which are quite relevant.  

You are only surprised at the result for a moment, but soon, quite soon, other sentences come.  You settle into them and you can tell from the expression on the interviewer's face that your responses are carrying your intent forward in graceful conversation.

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